During October each year, my older sister — who works in a hospital, I should add — asks the same question. “When is Grey’s Anatomy going to start again?”
Thankfully, its protracted popularity, even here in the UK, means it eventually arrives with ease. The show is so anticipated that I once acquired an episode through questionable means on a new Windows Vista laptop, which subsequently went through a factory reset thanks to the download’s accompanying virus. And yes, I said Vista. That’s how long the show’s been around.
With the recent release of Lynette Rice’s How to Save a Life, a behind-the-scenes look at this incredible series, the personalities, and the writers’ room, all I could think about was the apparently-ridiculous video game adaptation by Ubisoft in 2009. And, after putting myself through many, many of the game’s “episodes,” I feel the need to take you on a tour of its ridiculousness.
First of all, let me begin by saying, unsurprisingly, what a pain in the ass it was to even get a copy of the game. The game is digitally delisted everywhere (I’m guessing due to licensing issues) so I had to buy a used copy from Germany via eBay and hope it would contain English language support. Unfortunately, it did! And the first thing my clunky, DVD-drive-bearing, desktop PC did after installation was open Internet Explorer from whichever depths of hell it resides in Windows 10 right now.
The game’s multiple plot lines are split into episodes, acts and scenes, with each scene consisting of two or three characters interacting in conversation in hospital hallways or during surgery. Immediately after launching the game, with the helpful, signature beats of Psapp’s “Cosy in the Rocket” theme, I noticed the game looking... weird. I’ll get back to that in a second.
The first scene is great fan service, as we follow a Meredith Grey-looking figure into the elevator to join none other than Derek Shepherd, aka McDreamy, aka Dr. Dead Face. Fine, I’m being a little harsh here, but his character’s face does look strangely off here. In fact, they all do, and I think it’s down to some of their heads not being the right shape. It might sound like a strange observation but Miranda Bailey’s head (played brilliantly by Chandra Wilson, including the rest of the character’s body) looks like a plump round tomato. The art style reminded me of Ubisoft’s then-recent XIII remake with cel-shaded graphics, except here all the animations are incredibly stiff.
Anyway, back to the elevator, where you’re in charge of Meredith’s conversation with Derek, and have the choice to either act flirtatious or hostile. You make this decision during a pause in this cut-scene by reassembling cut up pieces of a polaroid. Erm... okay! This is followed by having to guide your mouse in a particular shape. And then eventually, as the scene progresses, you have to flick away clouds of doubt appearing over your character’s image. It sounds elementary, intellectually offensive and childish, because ultimately, it is.
What I’ve described is literally how different scenes play out throughout the game, with you having to make a choice on behalf of one of the characters, flick away doubt, or click and drag the mouse to apply stitches on someone’s arm. It’s tedious and disjointed, even as a set of mini-games. Oh, and that thing I mentioned about the game looking weird? It’s because it was made first for the Wii’s 4:3 aspect ratio, an absolute joke to release on PC, even in 2009.
Given it was released over a decade ago, and the known fluidity of characters and actors in the ensemble at any given moment, there are things that stick out. Let’s get the good out of the way: Isaiah Washington’s Burke character is nowhere to be seen. This is excellent not just because of his infamous exit from the show, but the dude is also a batshit right-wing poster. But then there’s the bad: in his place is the formidable (and annoyingly mean) Erica Hahn. Also, Izzy doesn’t have the thoughtful and considerate nature she’s best known for when portrayed by Katherine Heigl in the series.
But these shuffling characters are the secret ingredient of the show that makes it work so damn well. The characters are so full of life, with some being huge fan favorites, and others intentionally inserted as (non-evil) antagonists, making us care even more about our faves. Grey’s works because it’s the complete opposite of something like Dan Harmon’s Community, with little to no pop cultural references and a complete absence of self-awareness. The show’s transfer into the video game format is about as obvious a cash grab I’ve ever witnessed. Many other drama series from this particular time had respectable attempts as game adaptations, such as Buffy, Dark Angel, and Alias. And yes, given that the series premiered in 2004, it’s closer to those shows than something like Succession.
But the lack of drama is what makes the game so lifeless compared to the show. There’s no Denny Duquette, the heart patient Izzy (literally) goes crazy for in season two. Sandra Oh’s Christina Yang isn’t served anything interesting. And even Meredith doesn’t have anything that’s as dramatic as her dying mother being featured, or the mention of her hostile uterus. Some of the appeal of watching Grey’s is Meredith’s similarities to the annoying SNL character Debbie Downer, portrayed by Rachel Dratch. Without the drama, what is there to this medical drama?
I may be referencing highly dramatic — almost operatic — events the TV show has visited because that’s exactly what it’s known for. It’s as if anything out of the box — like the rare, obscure medical cases some of its TV episodes are based on — were out of bounds for the game’s creators.
Today’s TV adaptations can be wild and experimental in many different ways. There’s Nickelodeon happily letting its animated characters fight in it’s All-Star Brawl. Devolver published a surprisingly interesting take on Game of Thrones in Tale of Crows for Apple Arcade. And the explosion of card-based games means anything can be transformed into a turn-based strategy game. Heck, there was even a Desperate Housewives game that wasn’t as badly reviewed as this, as it provided depth, context and reasonably decent visuals.
And although the Grey’s Anatomy game completely suffocates upon immediate inspection, there is a big lesson here. Media conglomerates do have an opportunity to license their brands for games in a smoother fashion today, thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones. But with our gaming habits more accustomed to quality than ever, even dedicated fans will demand a good experience. In the absence of effort, this adaptation ends up looking exactly like what it is: a poorly made attempt to financially exploit your own fans. Let’s hope we’ve moved passed an environment where such projects can be produced.